Whether you’re specifically looking to add plant-based sources of iron to your diet or are worried about an iron deficiency and are looking to get iron from every level of the food pyramid, we have good news: there is iron in fruit! Continue reading to find out more about iron absorption, the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, and a list of fruits high in iron so you can add them to your shopping list ASAP.
Iron, Iron Absorption, and Iron Deficiency
Iron is a mineral and an essential nutrient for the human body, meaning we need it to function but cannot produce it chemically within ourselves. The only way to get the iron we need is to ingest it, and the easiest and most natural way to do that is to consume iron-rich foods.
The strongest sources of iron are animal sources such as lean beef, turkey, chicken, pork, and fish. But for those keeping to a vegan or vegetarian diet, eating meat is not an option you’ll choose. That leads to a quest to find iron from other sources, and we’ve got you covered. But first, we’ll quickly explain why iron is so vital, and what can happen in cases of iron deficiency.
The Importance of Iron
Iron is needed in a multitude of important functions, from hormone balance, to metabolism, to normal growth and development. One of iron’s most characteristic roles is in the production of hemoglobin, the part of our red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Not only is it vitally important to get oxygen to the cells, tissues, and organs in our bodies, but hemoglobin also helps in the work of ushering carbon dioxide out of the body and transporting it to the lungs to be exhaled.
Dietary iron comes in two types: heme and non-heme iron.
- Heme iron: found in seafood, poultry, and meat, this type of iron comes only from animal proteins.
- Non-heme iron: found in plant foods like beans, vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts and seeds, and in animal products like dairy and eggs.
Animal protein contains both heme and non-heme iron, however heme iron will not be naturally found outside of animal sources. This leads us to discuss the absorption rate of each type of iron for humans.
- Heme absorption: more easily absorbed by the human body.
- Non-heme absorption: less readily absorbed by the human body.
That may sound like bad news to those looking to seek iron from plant sources only, but don’t worry: there are ways to naturally increase non-heme iron absorption with your dietary choices (and fruit plays a major role in it… read on to find out how!).
Iron Deficiency Risk Groups and Iron Deficiency Anemia
Fortified foods like breakfast cereal contain up to 100% of the recommended daily value of iron, mostly because getting enough iron is so important for so many people, especially growing kids and adolescents. Who else is at risk for iron deficiency? Here’s a quick run-down of those for whom iron intake may be a concern.
Premature infants or infants with low birth weight often have reduced stores of iron, and in those cases an iron supplement will likely be needed for the first year of life. Though baby formula is often fortified with iron, for nursing mothers or in the cases of some formulas, it may not be enough. Your child’s doctor will be able to give specific supplementation advice until the child is old enough for dietary iron like meat, beans, or fortified cereal.
While full-term babies usually store enough iron for the first 4-6 months of life, as their bodies begin to rapidly grow, their iron intake needs to increase as well. Iron deficiency in young children could lead to learning and behavioral problems due to iron being used for muscle function and brain development. Beware of a circumstance known as “milk anemia” in which children drink too much cow’s milk, which naturally contains no iron; fortified milk is recommended in moderation instead.
Due to growth spurts and the development of female maturity which involves monthly periods, adolescent girls are a particularly high-risk group for becoming iron deficient. Signs might include headaches, brittle fingernails, shortness of breath, fatigue, and/or frequent colds or feelings of illness. Girls at this life stage need more iron for building muscle and increasing blood volume.
Women with particularly heavy periods (menorrhagia) are at a risk of developing iron deficiency, and up to 1 in 20 women of menstruating age will fall into this category.
Pregnant or Breastfeeding Women
Maternal iron deficiency is a known nutritional concern during pregnancy and postpartum, as more blood flow is needed first to deliver oxygen to the baby in utero, and then to provide nutrition via breastfeeding. A woman’s doctor will monitor this and other pregnancy concerns, though at the first sign of unusual weakness, she should ask a trusted medical professional for advice.
Vegans and Vegetarians
Along with an extra need for protein, vegans and vegetarians often must concern themselves with a higher risk of iron deficiency as well. Luckily there are plant-based foods with non-heme iron like legumes (soybeans, lentils), dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale), whole-grain breads and pastas, pumpkin seeds, and certain fruits (see below).
Frequent Blood Donors
While donating blood regularly is a generous and civic way to volunteer your own resources (literally) for your community and those in need, donating as much as allowed (every 8 weeks or 56 days) can quickly deplete your iron stores and lead to iron deficiency.
For runners and other endurance athletes, any limitation placed on animal protein can quickly lead to iron deficiency, as iron is essential in energy metabolism. Red meat cooked in a cast iron skillet is the best way to up iron intake for athletes, and short of that, plant-based sources of iron are invaluable.
Chemotherapy-induced anemia is a risk for cancer patients who are undergoing treatment, and not only that, but chronic blood loss and a lack of nutrients due to suppressed appetite also contribute to iron deficiency.
Those with Gastrointestinal Disorders
Conditions like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis can make iron deficiency a struggle due to an impaired ability to absorb iron in the gastrointestinal tract. This can also concern those who have had certain gastrointestinal surgeries that involved reorganizing the intestinal tract.
Those with Heart Failure
Over 50% of heart failure patients have iron deficiency anemia, exacerbated by the fact that taking aspirin regularly can also bring on iron deficiency, as it’s likely to cause gastrointestinal bleeding.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
If you’re in any of the above groups who may be at risk for iron deficiency, be aware of these signs of iron deficiency anemia so you know when it’s time to intervene or ask a medical professional for a diagnosis and care. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may include the following.
- Pale/sallow skin
- Pale/brittle fingernails
- Glossitis (an inflamed tongue)
Iron supplements may be desired, but they can also be harsh on your digestive tract. If you have iron deficiency anemia, seek medical advice and ask your doctor if a supplement is necessary or if the proper absorption of dietary iron will do the trick instead.
Fruits High in Iron
So here it is: your list of fruits high in iron (with values based on USDA measurements). Read on until the end to find out which fruits have the secret ingredient for upping the absorption of plant-based non-heme iron.
Dried apricots have 6.31 milligrams of iron per 100 grams of fruit and are a great source of fiber as well, the kind of soluble fiber that reduces dangerous cholesterol and binds with fatty acids for comfortable digestion.
This source of iron has 1.02 milligrams per 100 grams of dates, and dates also serve as a source of antioxidants. Along with vitamins A, K, folate, niacin, thiamin, and riboflavin, dates contain the nutrients potassium, zinc, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, and fiber too.
Dried plums, prunes are an iron-rich fruit containing 3.52 milligrams of iron per 100 grams. They’re also full of dietary fiber, B vitamins, potassium, calcium, and vitamin K. Prunes are well known for helping with comfortable digestion.
If you want the opposite of dried fruit, try a watermelon. This hydrating fruit is a great source of vitamin C and nets you a fair 0.24 milligrams of iron per 100 grams. With lycopene and beta-carotene as well, watermelon holds its own as a nutrient treasure trove.
Back to dried fruits, this time dried grapes, you can find 2.59 milligrams of iron in 100 grams of raisins. That’s nearly twice the amount of iron that can be found in grapes alone, as dehydrating the fruit helps it become more concentrated by weight. With B vitamins, potassium, and healthy carbs, raisins are a convenient snack that contributes to your overall health.
With 0.3 milligrams of iron per 100 grams, what pomegranates lack in overall iron levels they make up for in their content of vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin C, and folic acid.
With 6.8 milligrams of iron per 100 grams, goji berries are the most concentrated fruit source of iron, as well as the best-performing berry when it comes to iron (followed by blueberries at 2.2 milligrams, then mulberries at 1.85 milligrams). Most berries bring a lower amount of iron (around 0.7-0.9 milligrams of iron per 100 grams), but here’s the secret: berries are an iron-absorption booster! How? Because of vitamin C.
Vitamin C for Iron Absorption
Be they blueberries, blackberries, or strawberries, berries are an excellent source of vitamin C, which enhances absorption of the non-heme iron found in plant sources of iron and increases our cellular iron uptake. This is where getting your iron from fruit sources is especially valuable, because fruits that contain both iron and vitamin C give you two advantages for one fruit.
An Iron Will
Though iron is readily available in food sources, iron deficiency is nevertheless one of the the most common nutritional deficiencies in the United States. If you want to make sure you’re getting enough iron without eating meat, go for legumes, whole grain and enriched foods, as well as dried fruits to get not only a sufficient amount of non-heme iron, but also the vitamin C that will increase its absorption in your body.
Get creative with your iron intake! For example, cook up a chili recipe which combines both beans (non-heme iron) with tomatoes (vitamin C), thus giving you everything you need in one dish. Also, along with more dried fruits to snack on, consider cooking on a cast iron pan. In these small ways you can fully round out your iron intake, and rest assured you’re getting all that you need when it comes to iron.